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Back Down the Rabbit Hole with Ted Bundy: Falling For A Killer

Where Amazon's new docuseries fits in the pantheon of TV projects dedicated to the serial killer
  • Ted Bundy with his then-girlfriend Elizabeth Kendall in an image from The five-part series Ted Bundy: Falling For A Killer. (Photo: Amazon)
    Ted Bundy with his then-girlfriend Elizabeth Kendall in an image from The five-part series Ted Bundy: Falling For A Killer. (Photo: Amazon)

    Primetimer editor-at-large Sarah D. Bunting hosts her very own true crime podcast The Blotter Presents, so who better to preview Amazon's new five part true crime docuseries, Ted Bundy: Falling For A Killer and its place in the universe of Bundy inspired works?

    Amazon enters the fray today with yet another project in what's become a subgenre in and of itself: scripted miniseries, documentaries, podcasts and myriad references to Ted Bundy and his terrifying crimes in everything from American Justice to Zodiac case studies. (Yes, there are a small number of crackpots who believe the Bay Area's Zodiac killer was actually Bundy. No, I don't buy it.) You don't have to review this genre for a living to wonder, as I did, what Falling For A Killer could possibly offer in the way of new information or insight... and when we, as a culture, are finally going to be done with this guy.

    Let's take the second part first, because Bundy's status as a primary focus of the American true-crime consumer's attention may not reflect particularly well on us as a society, but it does make some sense. For starters, Bundy was handsome, charismatic and clever. Twenty-first-century audiences understand that sociopaths can have any number of faces — that's what can make them so dangerous — but in the 1970s, the image of a murderer capable of doing the sorts of things Bundy did was that of a shuffling, twitchy ghoul — easily spotted, ergo easily avoided. Ted Bundy's clean-cut Big Man on Campus presentation was fascinating to people. Ditto his escapes, in which that attractiveness and "who, me?" demeanor probably lulled those guarding him into believing he wasn't scheming nonstop to break out. It's human nature, I think, to respect a jailbreak and thrill in its possibilities, even if a local escape might have us piling furniture in front of the door.

    One could also say that Bundy is the face of what drives the popularity of serial-killer stories in general: the instinct to understand a thing that we, as "civilians" who are more or less correctly socialized and capable of empathy, can't truly comprehend. To know enough to be able to outwit them should the situation arise gives us a kind of "knowledge is power" motivation that's at least relatable. The reality, of course, is that  psychopathic murderers aren't that complicated: as Bill James tersely puts it in Popular Crime, they kill because they like killing, period — and knowing the "why" won't necessarily stop the "what." But to a 14-year-old with her nose in Ann Rule's The Stranger Beside Me, it can still feel like worthwhile research.

    There's one more explanation for why Bundy never seems to go away: Ted Bundy is a lot of people's "first." In many ways, Bundy was the first serial killer that law enforcement understood and communicated out to the public. But more to the point, that creased copy of The Stranger Beside Me found at a beach house or borrowed from a friend's cool older sister was the first contact much of the true-crime audience had with the genre. Granted, forty years ago "the genre" consisted of that book, Truman Capote's In Cold Blood and Unsolved Mysteries, but still, Bundy is how a lot of us got "into" this material.

    So is Falling For A Killer going to be the one thing too many that finally and permanently oversaturates the Bundy market? Perhaps... but not likely. And to be fair, it does seem to offer a new angle on this old, sickening story. Filmmaker Trish Wood is trying to look at Bundy and his crimes through the lens of the women who were affected — not just his victims (on whom we should have been focused all along), but also the "generation" of women his killing spree terrified, the policewoman who started connecting some of Bundy's crimes early in the investigation, and Elizabeth Kendall, Bundy's fiancé, who published a memoir of her time with him under a pseudonym years ago, but has otherwise maintained a resolutely low profile in the decades since his crimes dominated headlines. These are voices not usually heard in Bundy coverage, and I'm hopeful that Falling For A Killer is a justifiable addition to an already teetering pile of material.

    What else in that pile is worth your time? The last few years alone have seen hours and hours of Bundy television programming; here's a guide to some of the best (and a couple of the rest)  TV-adjacent Bundy properties.

    The Deliberate Stranger (DVD). It's a little surprising that this miniseries isn't available on a streaming platform. Maybe Mark Harmon doesn't want an NCIS-loving world to see how good he was at capturing Ted Bundy's mixture of "appealing" and "juuuust a little bit off." But he really was good, and while it suffers from some typically '80s-miniseries pacing issues, TDS's creepy-chimes theme music, frightening imagery (that HAND!), and outstanding cast (Frederic Forrest co-stars) makes this the gold standard of the era's true-crime miniseries.

    Conversations With A Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes (Netflix). Hall-of-fame documentarian Joe Berlinger (the Paradise Lost films and Brother's Keeper) took two runs at Bundy in the last couple of years. This is the non-fiction take, and the better one — exhaustive, expertly assembled, and chilling. Some critics docked the four-part series for seeming more like an evidence list than an analysis, but... see my previous comments re: "understanding" serial killers. Bundy assaulted and murdered women because he wanted to. No documentarian is going to "make sense of" that.

    Ann Rule Presents: The Stranger Beside Me (Amazon Prime). Starring Billy Campbell as Bundy and Barbara Hershey as Ann Rule, The Stranger Beside Me centers its narrative more on Rule, and how she failed to see what Bundy was, even as she was consulting with the police on the crimes he was committing. TSBM can feel a bit too broad at times, like it's straining to find Freudian motivations for Bundy's elemental psychopathy, but Campbell is Harmon's equal at portraying Bundy as initially engaging, but not quite right.

    Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil And Vile (Netflix). Berlinger's other take on Bundy from 2019, this is "the Zac Efron one," and fears that the project's primary interest lay in the casting and styling of Efron as Bundy were somewhat justified. Extremely Wicked is based on the memoir by Kendall that I mentioned above, and in theory it's her story, but in practice, Bundy ends up pulling focus yet again, and Berlinger's graceless response to criticism on social media underlined the impression that Extremely Wicked may not have been fully thought out.

    Bundy: A Legacy Of Evil (Vudu). Strictly speaking, this isn't a television project, but I will never tire of surfacing the fact that Corin "Parker Lewis" Nemec played Ted Bundy. (As well as Richard Speck, but that's a column for another time.) Sometimes crassly subtitled "An American Icon," this shouldn't be confused with 2002's execrable Ted Bundy. This one went straight to video in 2009, and is merely bad.

    Sarah D. Bunting co-founded Television Without Pity, and her work has appeared in Glamour and New York, and on MSNBC, NPR's Monkey See blog, MLB.com, and Yahoo!. Find her at her true-crime newsletter, Best Evidence, and on TV podcasts Extra Hot Great and Again With This.

    TOPICS: Ted Bundy: Falling for a Killer, Amazon, Netflix, Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, Ted Bundy, Documentaries